Forgotten classics: The Ice Saints by Frank Tuohy

Neal Ascherson

This month, we dig into the story behind The Ice Saints by Frank Tuohy—at once hilarious and sad, it depicts the harsh cruelties of life in Communist Poland. Last printed in 1966, it's now being published by Apollo as part of their mission to restore remarkable books for a new generation of readers.

About the book

Poland in about 1960, the site of Frank Tuohy’s novel, was precisely a country where green shoots of hope had been blackened by the unexpected return of frost. In 1956, after enduring years of Stalinist terror, the Poles—or more accurately, a rebellious faction within the Communist Party—had defied a threat of Soviet invasion and thrown off direct control by Moscow.

This "Polish October" led into a brief, ecstatic period in which censorship was lifted, the secret police (or some of them) were disbanded, and travel to and from the Western world became easier. Left-wingers across the world hoped that other Communist parties would now take "the Polish Road to Socialism", combining an enlightened Marxism with democratic freedoms.

 

 

"Poles could now talk to Western foreigners without fear of arrest. The arts were still bold and defiant and the press could still be critical of Soviet and Polish policies—up to a point"

 

 

But "confidence in the Spring" was misplaced. The late Fifties was the time when I first got to know Poland and when Frank Tuohy arrived from Britain as a lecturer at the Jagellonian University in Kraków. By then, the Ice Saints were hard at work. Censorship had returned, the brilliant liberalisers in the Party had lost their jobs and the secret policemen were back with their files and microphones. The Party, under Władysław Gomułka, was firmly in control again.


Gomulka in 1956

And yet the afterglow of "the October" remained. Poles could now talk to Western foreigners without fear of arrest. The arts (film and theatre especially) were still bold and defiant and the press could still be critical of Soviet and Polish policies—up to a point. Some attempt was made to redirect the economy away from heavy industry towards the needs of ordinary people.

All this encouraged a minority to hope, to convince themselves that things really were continuing to get better in spite of the "Ice Saints" frost, that the best of "the October" would reassert itself. Frank Tuohy never had such illusions. He seems to have held no strong political views.

 

 

"The fact that the Poland he encountered remained so much freer and livelier than it had been under the Stalinist tyranny did not impress him"

 

 

But he saw Poland through the eyes of an English liberal intellectual, and what he saw was a crushed society living in squalor and shortages, still traumatised by the wartime nightmares of Nazi and Soviet occupation, blocking off reality with fantasies of national self-pity, conditioned to suspect everyone as a potential informer.

There has been no shortage of books—memoirs and fiction—about the brutality and unreason of life in Communist Europe. The Ice Saints, in contrast, is something different, rare and valuable: an outsider’s take on the compromises with power undertaken by decent people—some skilfully managed, some disgraceful or tragic.

Current Polish governments affect to believe that Communist Poland was a binary thing: either you were a stainless Catholic patriot or you were a corrupt tool of the "foreign Bolshevik creed of hate". Frank Tuohy knew better, which is one reason why this novel has become once more important. 

 

 

"Tuohy was briefly "discovered" as one of the most talented English writers"

 

 

Tuohy spent most of his life abroad, a British Council lecturer in English who lived in Brazil, Finland, Argentina, Portugal and Japan, as well as in Poland. He died in 1999, an aloof man who wrote much less than his admirers hoped for. The Ice Saints was not his first fiction. But it produced a critical sensation when it appeared in 1964; Tuohy was briefly "discovered" as one of the most talented English writers.

And yet, although it won the James Tait Black best-novel prize that year, this was the last novel that he completed, and in recent decades it has been almost completely forgotten. In part, this must be because the East European world it describes vanished so rapidly and completely after the democratic upheavals of 1989. But it is also because the way he wrote fell out of fashion.


Frank Tuohy. Image via petersfraserdunlop

Tuohy wrote to please himself. He had an extraordinary ear for class-inflected dialogue, a collector’s eye for the small details of a person or a place, a rare sense of the music of words. All that can be found in The Ice Saints. But he pays little attention to the orthodoxies of a modern creative writing course. When he feels like halting the flow to discuss an ethical dilemma or to categorise somebody’s motives, he does so.  

A Cold War novel? The Ice Saints is much more than that. It's a severe lesson in empathy, about the impact of well-meaning strangers on the "unfortunates" they propose to rescue or relieve. 

 

The Excerpt 

"Janet, who was twelve years older than Rose, had trained as a nurse and met Witek in a war hospital. Their son Tadeusz was born in England but the Rudowskis had proudly bestowed on him a name that could not be anglicized. Janet, like many nurses, had always been unquestioningly kind to everyone, and her kindness had led her to this war-pocked city in East­ern Europe.

At thirty-six Janet had the thickened body of a woman in late middle age. She clung to Rose with hands that were like claws. Emotion welled up, originating from the separation, but due as much, in Rose’s case, to physical exhaustion.

Very soon after, however, the staff nurse’s briskness came out once more and Rose recognized it with affection. ‘Witek has the front room all to himself now. His books are there, of course. You and I’ll sleep in here.’

 

 

"The fur­niture had a poverty-engrained look like the furniture in very cheap lodgings"

 

 

The room they were standing in had divans along two of the walls. There was a round table in the middle of the room, some potted plants, dog-eared American magazines; a shelf of Janet’s favourite books from her childhood, and copies of Eckersley’s Brighter English, Allen’s Living English Structure and Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language. The fur­niture had a poverty-engrained look like the furniture in very cheap lodgings.

‘This is where I work, really, so you’ll have to move out during the day. But I’m sure Witek won’t mind you sitting in his room while he’s at the University.’

‘Where does Tadeusz go?’

‘He’s on a camp bed in the kitchen. He’s fine there, fright­fully tidy. He gets it from me. Well, now you know how we stand. There are some hangers for your clothes in the hallway. And I’ve cleared you out a couple of drawers. I packed the things into an old trunk, actually. Do you know, I’ve still got my school trunk, the one I had at Cheltenham. I don’t know why I keep it really. It isn’t as though I was ever likely to move anywhere any more. Is that all right, then?’

‘I’m sorry, darling, I simply must go somewhere.’

‘Oh dear, I’ve got out of the habit of asking. They never ask you here. The aunt is through the kitchen.’

The place was not clean, and squares of newspaper were pushed on to a nail. The printed language looked frightening, so utterly unknown.

 

 

"Watching her while they ate, she was all at once overwhelmed by pity for Janet—she needed the attentions of their childhood, hot milk and biscuits, an early night"

 

 

Janet took such pride in her arrangements that you had to accept them without question. Rose remembered Mark Tatham’s warnings about drink. I’ll need about half a bottle, she thought, before I dare tell her that from now on, all this can come to an end.

The moment he had delivered Rose to the flat, Tadeusz stepped backwards and disappeared into the dusk. He and Witek were both absent for supper. Rose thought this was insufferably rude and it was almost too much for her waning self-confidence. While they drank tea and ate cold ham with very good bread and butter, Janet talked on.

‘Do they all do their eyes like this now?’

‘Like what?’

‘You know – mascara. I saw it in those Vogues you send me but I thought it was only for models. I mean, I wasn’t to know, living here, was I?’ She seemed on the defensive as though everything that had happened was her own fault.

Rose noticed that Janet still held her knife like a fountain pen, the way nurses did, and remembered how her father used to tease her about it. Watching her while they ate, she was all at once overwhelmed by pity for Janet. She needed the attentions of their childhood, hot milk and biscuits, an early night. Could you get biscuits here or even milk? From Janet’s conversation she gathered that the extent of one’s deprivations was so enor­mous as to be only a subject for jokes. You could only suggest something for her to deny its possibility with a hard laugh. Rose was sure that this bitterness was something new, that it had not been there when Janet last came to England.

‘I have to pay twenty zlotys duty on each of them.’

‘On what?’

‘The Vogues. But it’s worth it. You see I give them to my dressmaker. She copies the patterns and she alters things or makes them up for me free, from time to time. You’ve got to be smart about things like that in this place, I can tell you.’ She poured out more tea. ‘Not much supper tonight, I’m afraid. You see I had my evening lessons earlier, to be free when you came. No time for shopping.’

‘The ham was jolly good.’

Rose was miserable. Her father and she had comforted themselves for some years with the idea that Janet’s stoical cheeriness made her life here somehow possible. Evidently this was not so. Rose tried to cheer herself by thinking that her own arrival had made Janet homesick – she had always sur­rendered easily to the simpler emotions – and this had turned her against her surroundings. Whatever was to happen to the Rudowskis now, Janet was too emotional to be permitted to have her own way. She had to be told, but it was Witek and of course Tadeusz who were the ones to decide."

 

The Ice Saints by Frank Tuohy is published by Apollo

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